"The Foolishness of a Consumer Society"
by Paul Rosenberg
"Do custom-embroidered powder room towels actually make your life better? If you think so, and if you’re not of the very few who care about towels as an art form, you’re getting your kicks from other people being impressed by you. You’re buying the approval of others… and you’re all being foolish together. Quality food makes your life better. A reliable car makes your life better. Good medicine makes your life better. Olive spoons do not.
Sadly, much of the Western world, and America especially, has become addicted to status symbols. This has been going on for generations now. When I was a boy people joked about “keeping up with the Joneses,” but the joke was funny only because it was true. This is an addiction. Yes, it is a cultured addiction – you can barely escape the promotion of it in the modern world – but it’s an addiction nonetheless.
How This Happened: This is what I’ve been told by men considerably older than myself: World War I was a major turning point for American business. A large number of businessmen got rich at that time, selling all sorts of war materials to the Allies: uniforms, shovels, saddles, guns, ammunition, even horses. Many people will not remember this, but the US didn’t enter the war until 1917; it had begun in 1914. But American businessmen were enjoying record sales the whole time.
After the war ended in late 1918, things began winding down (winding down a war takes time). They didn’t return to normal quickly, because of a horrendous flu epidemic in 1918 through 1920, which killed millions and not just the very young or old. Still, the plague eventually wound down, leaving businessmen to cope with seriously declining numbers.
It was at that point, my older friends informed me, that big business decided they had to do something about this and get people to buy more stuff than they’d been buying previously: to squeeze more consumption from the same people. And they embarked upon this course with vigor.
Perhaps no public statement on this subject was clearer than one from Paul Mazur, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers, writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1927: "We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs."
As is evident from the America of our time, this worked. A huge percentage of things people buy will be sold for pennies on the dollar at their eventual estate sales. They are bought in the hope of imparting some kind of self-esteem, status, or envy, not because they actually improve life.
Now, while I’m picking on things like embroidered towels and olive spoons, we must also acknowledge that a very few people will care about such things for art’s sake… and that’s fine… it is not foolish. But let’s also be honest and admit that such people are few and far between.
Scientific Manipulation: In fairness to American and Western populations, we should add that this change was accomplished with scientific manipulation, which was arising at just this time. One of the major drivers of this was a man named Edward Bernays, who was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He made a lot of money teaching giant corporations to manipulate the public. Here are two quotes from him:
"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it."
"Physical loneliness is a real terror to the gregarious animal, and that association with the herd causes a feeling of security. In man this fear of loneliness creates a desire for identification with the herd in matters of opinion."
There was a concentrated effort to manipulate the minds of millions, to frighten them and to herd them on behalf of the political and financial classes. This was problem enough in the days when people received their news from newspapers, but it was supercharged by television.
So… Those of us of the West have lived all our lives inside a web of manufactured discontent. We are told to elect political candidates because their opponent is horrible and because things are bad. We are told that we must buy new houses or vacations or a hundred other things, because other people have them and we’ll look bad in comparison. Or that the boy or girl we’re interested in won’t agree to marry us unless we look a certain way, buy a certain ring, or drive a certain type of car. And so on, in hundreds of variations.
All of this is based on the assumption that we are in a deficit position – that the advertised product will somehow fill our deficit. The fake world – as shown on TV and Facebook – features an endless struggle for empty acquisition and status symbols.
It is foolish to slave away in the service of giant corporations. If we wish to be sensible, we should labor for things that actually make our lives better. And if something is manipulatively advertised, we shouldn’t buy it. Live for you, not for them.”